Folk (Birmingham Repertory Theatre)

Tessa Walker directs this new comedy by Tom Wells

Tom Wells‘ comedy about an unlikely friendship cemented in folk music is a gem. It sparkles throughout with warm humour and sharp wit yet under that shiny surface lie some deeper questions about loyalty, trust and generosity.

Guinness-swigging, cigarette-smoking, obscenity-swearing nun Winnie and musician Stephen come together every Friday night for a sing song. But their entertainment is cut short when troubled teenager Kayleigh throws a brick through Winnie’s window. While Stephen is wary Kayleigh may spell trouble, the loving nun welcomes the teen with open arms. And from this inauspicious beginning the fruits of real friendship grow.

Wells’ Winnie is a fantastic creation. Overflowing with love for others and yet in no way ready to humour fools, the massive irony is that Winnie’s huge heart is actually failing her. Connie Walker is a whirlwind of energy in the part – it’s impossible not to adore her as she pats her statue of Jesus on the head, fist bumps Kayleigh and accompanies a folk song with a rapturous rendition on the spoons.

Patrick Bridgman is the shy and awkward Stephen who discovers expression in music but finds words so difficult he often stumbles when he speaks.

And Chloe Harris takes on the role of Kayleigh who escapes a problematic home life in the sanctuary of Winnie’s lounge and in the limitless affection of Winnie herself.

Folk is a concentrated piece of theatre with no diversions or extraneous details – every piece of dialogue has its place and purpose. Directed by Tessa Walker, all the action takes place in one place, Winnie’s home, and the 90-minute production is performed without an interval at Birmingham Rep’s more intimate Studio, ensuring the audience is fully involved in the story unfolding before them.

Bob Bailey‘s design for the lounge perfectly matches Winnie’s character with a crochet blanket over a floral sofa, a cushion bearing the face of Jesus on a worn armchair, an array of multicoloured glass bottles as ornaments and a picture of Pope John Paul II hanging on the wall.

In many ways it’s a simple morality tale which shows the value of friendship even when the going gets tough but Folk is so much richer because these ties are held together by such fine threads. When Winnie proposes the trio hold an Easter folk night despite the clear opposition of Stephen, the intransigence on both sides threatens their bond.

Presented by Birmingham Repertory, Hull Truck and Watford Palace Theatres, Folk is new writing at its best.

Folk runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 30 April before playing Hull Truck Theatre 3-14 May and Watford Palace Theatre 18-28 May.

Read our interview with Tom Wells here